My first job was working as a landscaper. It was demanding work, demanding because it was hard work in the hot sun, all day long. It also required attention to the smallest detail without losing sight of the landscape in which you were working.
It required knowledge about plants and soil, skills for cultivating them, and a willingness to get to know the particular piece of ground with its set of limitations and possibilities. Day after day, the crew would grab our tools and get to work at our site—weeding, trimming, installing beds, planting shrubs, grinding stumps, spreading mulch. Together, we created some beautiful spaces for folks to inhabit.
I have had many jobs since then, but I’m still landscaping. When I write or preach or garden, I’m naming and shaping landscapes. I like to think of my mission statement as “providing language and landscape for the spiritual life.” Ministry and creative work (however you define either of those terms) are works of what Wendell Berry called “imagination in place.” They require being rooted in a particular place among particular people, paying attention, forming relationships, and dreaming with God about its possibilities. Like outdoor landscaping, it requires both careful attention to detail and awareness of the wider context. This takes training because our imaginations are not as free as we think; they are captive to powers like consumerism and colonialism. Thankfully, I’ve had some good teachers over the years. One of my favorite teachers was the late musician Rich Mullins.
In my own Quaker faith, we don’t talk much about specific rituals that serve as “sacraments.” Instead, we talk about the “sacramental universe” we all occupy. Anyone and anything can be a means of grace. While Rich valued the Lord’s Supper and other historic Christian ordinances, he also had a sense that we live in a “sacramental universe.” Maybe he was shaped by that same Quaker tradition; he attended a Quaker meeting in Indiana as a kid.
“Everywhere I go I see you” is something Rich and I can both sing in this sacramental universe. It’s a beautiful truth and an alluring invitation. Wherever we go we can expect to experience divine presence, not only in exotic and exciting new places but also “here in America” where the Holy King of Israel loves us, even here “in the land of [our] sojourn.” We don’t always feel like God is near or always hear God speaking, but most of the time we can assume it’s because we have more to learn about seeing and hearing. Learning is the central task for all spiritual and creative work. “Everywhere I go I see you” is preceded by “everywhere I go, I’m looking.” Rich was always looking. He found beauty in the ordinary. But he also kept looking when he saw things that were broken and painful. He looked without looking away.
Anyone and anything can be a means of grace. Andrew Stanton-Henry
I moved from Ohio to Kansas to attend college when I was a young adult. I didn’t go to Friends University like Rich but attended another small Quaker college in western Kansas. Like Rich, I was captivated by the landscapes of the Great Plains. The wide-open expansiveness can be overwhelming at first, yet eventually, I fell in love with it and began to experience what Belden Lane called “the solace of fierce landscapes.” Rich’s music, which I had loved for as long as I could remember listening to music, helped me appreciate that landscape. He gave me words to sing and pray and contemplate while inhabiting that specific region. I learned to listen to the prairies “calling out [God’s] name.” Every time I saw a pheasant while driving down a dirt road, I thought of the “fury in a pheasant’s wings.”
I also came to understand why Rich wrote so much about the “winds of heaven.” In Kansas, the wind is a wild force. It can’t be ignored and can barely be resisted. Kansans know why wind is such a common metaphor for God in the Bible—and sometimes it’s more than a metaphor. When you are facing the great winds on the plains, you can see why the Psalmist said God “makes the wind his messengers” (Ps. 104:4). If we listen to those divine messengers, just maybe “the howling will take [us] home.” Those winds of heaven intersect with the stuff of earth and “shake us forward and shake us free.” It’s scary sometimes but also liberating because we are set free to “run wild with this hope.”
These days, I talk and write about the importance of place and community and rootedness and landscape. In college, those things weren’t particularly important to me, but I think leaving my hometown (and later returning) changed that. It wasn’t only the process of leaving and making a life “on my own” that shaped me. It was witnessing a very different natural and cultural landscape and learning about what Kathleen Norris called “a spiritual geography.” Between Norris’ book Dakota and Rich Mullins’ songs, I learned to love my place and live in it faithfully.
I’ve come to believe that ministers and musicians are landscapers, not only because they plant new life and shape landscapes but also because, at their best, they help us learn the spirituality of a place—its history, its landscapes, its inhabitants. They help us see God’s presence and activity in places we previously thought were boring or even barren. They help us practice “imagination in place.”
Maybe the metric for good music and good ministry should be this: we finish the song or the sermon or the book and say “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Gen. 28:16).